Cordner, Joseph (James) (1875–1963), pioneer aviator, was born 11 February 1875 in Derryinver, Co. Armagh, twin brother of Edward Cordner and son of Ussiagh Cordner, farm labourer, and Anne Cordner. Educated locally, Joseph (who may also have been known as ‘James’) and Edward opened a bicycle shop together in Lurgan about 1900. In 1908, both having married, Joseph moved to Derry, establishing his own business at 5 John St., while Edward settled nearer home in Portadown. Joseph became a professional motor agent, combining knowledge used in bicycle and motor manufacture that enabled him to experiment with building Ireland's first operational aeroplane.
Inspired by American flight pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright, who in December 1903 flew the world's first heavier-than-air aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Cordner independently designed a rudderless, streamlined monoplane powered by a J.A.P. motor (made by the J. A. Prestwich company in north London). The curving, glider-like wings and tailplane lacked ailerons but had a unique arrangement of V-shaped channels or slots underneath, controlled by the pilot to steer and land the aircraft. Uncertainty, owing to a lack of support documents and reliable witnesses, overshadowed his claim to have made the first Irish aeroplane flight at the White Strand, Buncrana, Co. Donegal, in the summer or autumn of 1908, with subsequent trials lasting into 1909. He was challenged by engineer and aviation pioneer Harry Ferguson (qv), who subsequently received credit for the first Irish flight on 31 December 1909 at Hillsborough Park, Co. Down.
Whereas Ferguson's flights (and crashes) were well recorded from 1909 through 1910 at various locations in Ulster, including passenger flights at Magilligan Strand at the mouth of Lough Foyle, neither Cordner's earlier claims nor his passengers, reputedly flown at Magilligan in 1909, could be confirmed. However, in September 1911 he received a patent for his underwing V-shaped channels and built an advanced aircraft featuring his own patent control system on the wings while using conventional rear elevators. After the prototype's accidental destruction prior to take-off (1912), he experimented with vertical flight. The first world war intervened in 1914 and Cordner joined the RFC. He was obliged to attend Hendon aerodrome outside London in 1915 to qualify for a Royal Aeronautical Club licence (granted 6 September 1916) and subsequently trained pilots there until the 1918 Armistice, prior to demobilisation.
On 22 April 1919 he obtained his patent for a rotary aircraft, potentially capable of vertical or conventional flight, including multi-functional military applications, distantly anticipating the helicopter and the jump-jet. A month later, amid the international flurry of postwar aviation adventures which lasted until the 1930s, he and Geoffrey Smiles of the Belfast Ropeworks manufacturing family flew an Avro 504K biplane from Hendon to Edinburgh and south-west via Turnberry in Ayrshire to Portrush, Co. Antrim, appearing there unexpectedly on the ‘quiet Sabbath’ Sunday night of 25 May 1919. After a show of aerobatics including ‘looping the loop’ they were greeted on landing by excited crowds, witnessing what the newspapers announced as the first landing of a civilian aeroplane in Ireland since the government had lifted restrictions on passenger and freight travel at the beginning of May. Other than demonstration flights, they spent several days giving aerobatic passenger trips inland between Portrush and Coleraine and along the northern coast as far as the Giant's Causeway. They stayed at the Portrush Hotel over the following week, where bookings for flights could be made. Among the many passengers were a clearly delighted correspondent of the Northern Constitution who, with that of the Coleraine Chronicle, recorded the event and its festive response among the public. Sergeant Walsh of the RIC, who had the previous evening arrested a man for theft and falsely posing as a Victoria Cross recipient, was another privileged passenger.
Grasping the public mood, Cordner and Smiles reported that they had already placed an order for smaller aircraft with the London Provincial Aviation Company at Edgware, Middlesex, to fly passenger trips to practically any part of Ireland. They intended to attempt an Atlantic crossing later in the summer of 1919. At the same time, an eastward Atlantic crossing from Newfoundland by the Australians Hawker and Grieve ended in a much-publicised sea rescue some hundreds of miles short of Ireland; less than a month later, British aviators Alcock and Brown succeeded in their transatlantic bid.
Joseph Cordner's optimistic plans may have been misplaced in the excitement of postwar aviation freedom. Having apparently fulfilled his desire to conduct civil air demonstrations and passenger flights in the short term, he faded from the historical record, although he continued privately to develop vertical-take-off aircraft models. His achievement remained virtually unacknowledged in his lifetime as the Irish pioneer of modern flight, although the first to land in the country after the armistice. Undoubtedly in 1919–21 the war of independence and partition of Ireland detracted from the essentially social dimension of his ambition for air-tourism. Little is recorded of his private life or subsequent experience; he was married, but the date and his wife's name are not known. He reportedly died ‘in his eighty-ninth year’ in Dundonald, Co. Down, in 1963, both a mystery and a legend in early Irish aviation. Images of his aircraft are held at the photographic archive of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, Holywood, Co. Down.